As education minister, Hekia Parata upset New Zealand’s tech sector by not elevating digital technology teaching to the level they asked for.
The debate hasn’t stopped.
It may never stop. The technology industry is wealthy and powerful. It knows how to lobby. It is a master of using the media. Its voice will be heard.
It has a good point.
There’s a strong case for giving digital technology a greater share of the curriculum.
Digital technology doesn’t belong in a vocational ghetto alongside woodwork and other non-academic subjects.
While there is a case for non-academic digital education, technology also needs to be taught to a higher standard.
But let’s not carried away. Whether you call it digital literacy or technology it should not be on a par with language or maths teaching.
They are fundamental.
Although you might argue the same about technology’s role in the modern world, that’s not quite true.
Literacy and digital, different aspects of the same thing
You can’t do digital well without being able to read and communicate.
Without reading skills a young person’s digital experience can’t advance far beyond taking selfies, playing games and watching streamed video.
Most digital devices are, one way or another, communications tools.
Even if the tools evolve to the point where an ability to write or type is no longer essential, people still need basic communications skills.
If the goal is to encourage more young New Zealanders into technology careers, they need to be articulate and numerate to cope with the work.
At a pinch you can train a literate, articulate adult to work in almost every tech industry role. Although it may not be impossible to find meaningful work for those without those skills, it will be harder.
Education bigger picture
Education has be about more than preparing people for the workplace. Digital skills are important for every other aspect of life.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of technology education: the digital divide.
We often think the digital divide is only about access to devices, tools and networks. It is usually framed as something that affects poorer or more remote New Zealanders.
Yet there’s another divide that’s just as bad.
People who feel unable to perform even basic digital tasks because they lack the skills are as disadvantaged as those who can’t get online.
The same goes for people who can’t read, write or otherwise communicate. We don’t call that a digital divide, but it amounts to something similar. Let’s call it the literacy divide.
It’s great that we devote money, time and energy to helping people get across the digital divide. More power to those working in this area.
Yet we also need to use the same vigour to deal with the basic literacy divide because those people are in the same dark place.
So, by all means ramp up digital education, but not at the expense of something that’s more fundemental.
Geeks might not like RSS, but it’s an essential tool if you monitor news or need to stay up to date with developments in a subject area.
An RSS feed is a way of listing online material. There’s a feed for this site if you’re interested. It sends out a short headline and an extract for each new post. That way you can stay up to date with everything published here without needing to constantly revisit the site to check for updates.
Some big sites break up their news rivers into separate feeds. At the New York Times or The Guardian you can choose to read the technology news feed. At ZDNet you can pick subject feeds or selected a feed for an individual journalist.
Sometimes you can also roll your own niche feeds from big sites by using a search term to get a list of all stories including a certain key word.
The beauty of RSS is that it is comprehensive. It misses nothing. If you go offline for a week you can pick up where you left off and catch up immediately.
RSS is comprehensive
The alternatives are social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. They are nothing like as comprehensive or as easy to manage. Tweets go flying past in a blur on Twitter.
All the main social media sites manage your feed. They decide what you see. This means you can miss important posts as they get pushed out of sight. That doesn’t happen with RSS.
In his story David Sparks says you need to be on Twitter all the time to catch news. Make that: you need to be on Twitter all the time AND staying more alert than most people can manage.
The other great thing about RSS is the format is so universal. It can be as simple as raw text. You can read it on your phone, tablet, computer or anywhere at any time. You can suck it out and place it on your own web site, for instance.
There are RSS readers built into browsers, mail clients like Outlook and other standard software. Or at least there were. I haven’t checked again lately. Feedly is one of the most popular readers. This is both a website and a series of free apps. You can pay a little extra to extra features such as an ability to search feeds, tools for integrating feeds into your workflows and so on.
New Zealanders have three mobile phone networks to choose from. New Zealand sensors will soon have four dedicated Internet of Things networks to choose from. That’s a competitive market by any measure.
You can’t move in this country at the moment without someone talking about the Internet of Things.
Two weeks ago Communications Minister Simon Bridges spoke about a report commissioned by the New Zealand Internet of Things Alliance. The report says the IoT could be worth $2 billion to the economy over ten years. That may prove to be a conservative estimate, although it depends on how you define the Internet of Things.
The New Zealand IoT Alliance is part of NZTech. It is an umbrella group set up as the voice of the technology sector.
Accelerate IoT adoption
All the main local IoT players are part of the Alliance. It’s job is to accelerate the adoption of the IoT. That sounds like it’s a good thing. It is a good thing. But it is also about sales.
When tech firms promise something approaching nirvana it is wise to remember Virgil’s Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. Loosely translated means fear the geeks even when they bring gifts. OK, Virgil was talking about the Danaans or Greeks, but the point stands.
Vodafone says it will roll-out an IoT network early next year in anticipation of explosive demand. The company will offer Narrowband-IoT, a low-power wide area network. It uses dedicated, licenced spectrum. Vodafone says its IoT technology is secure and will cover vast geographic areas.
Spark also plans a Narrowband-IoT network. It says the network will open this time next year.
The telcos will join two existing IoT networks already in operation here. Wellington-based KotahiNet and Australia’s Thinxtra.
Premium IoT technology
Vodafone technology director Tony Baird describes his company’s NB-IoT as a premium technology. He says: “It is supported by over 40 of the world’s largest mobile operators plus many more suppliers and innovators that serve the majority of the global IoT market.”
His last point is important. If a business wants to invest in the IoT, it needs to make bets that will last for the long-haul. There’s always a danger of choosing a dead-end IoT technology like Betamax or CDMA. Vodafone’s message is that you’re not going to get stuck with unusable technology if you follow its path. On the other hand, premium also means not cheap.
The Internet of Things is about connecting sensors and other devices to the network. This is something Vodafone has been doing for some time now. The company already has more than 1.4 million devices on its 2G phone network in New Zealand. It will oversee many times that number of devices around the world.
Vodafone is a multinational business. It is a natural first choice for multinational players operating in New Zealand. They won’t need to start learning all over again to set up a local IoT network.
Vodafone says the NB-IoT is the same technology it uses elsewhere. The company has already tested NB-IoT in the field in a trial with Nokia, its technology partner for the project.
Spark is also working on a narrowband network that has evolved from cellular phone technology. It is working with Kordia to build the network.
The company is using its Connected Farms project to roll-out pilot capabilities on farms in the Waikato.
Vodafone and Spark have a number of things going for them. They have brand recognition, market power and a considerable installed based to call on. Both have signification infrastructure already in place.
If Vodafone and Spark have a downside, it is that they are often not as nimble as smaller players. They may get around this by partnering with local specialists. The IoT is a natural fit with New Zealand’s Wireless Internet Service Providers.
However, the big telcos don’t have it all their own way. KotahiNet has already staked out ground with its $1 per sensor per month easy to understand flat fee approach. That may yet be important in this market. When you deal with thousands of devices, the unit cost matters.
Two other things are impressive about KotahiNet. First, although it is small, KotahiNet already has plenty of runs on the board. That means customers to act as brand ambassadors or case studies.
Also, the business takes a bottom-up approach to IoT. The big telcos are much more top-down. You can buy a starter kit in the KotahiNet shop for a few dollars. That way you can tinker with the technology before making a large financial commitment. This approach could prove to be powerful when it comes to building partnerships and reaching engaged business owners.
Net neutrality is controversial in the US. It is not an issue in New Zealand. As telecommunications and media companies get closer, it is time to take another look.
What is net neutrality, why does it matter elsewhere and how might it move onto the agenda in New Zealand?
Net neutrality says internet companies can’t play favourites with network data. Nor can they pick and choose what services or organisations can use their networks.
Put in those terms, net neutrality is simple. It echoes the internet’s design where the network is blind to the packets it carries. Everything is a dumb pipe. The neutral internet treats all data as equal. Nothing has priority. It doesn’t block any data. It doesn’t slow any data.
For years that was how everything worked and everyone was happy.
Net neutrality versus profit
Then some US internet service providers decided this got in the way of profit. They decided they would like to pick and choose the traffic going through their pipes. They want to charge big online media companies extra to prioritise their traffic.
Something else changed. In the internet’s early days, no-one knew what traffic was going through the dumb pipes. Then the industry developed a technology called deep packet inspection.
This means service providers are no longer blind. They can look inside the data packets on their networks and see what traffic is passing through.
What they found made them less sympathetic to the idea of net neutrality.
The case for dropping net neutrality
This isn’t as one-sided as it might appear. Telecommunications companies are under pressure to invest more in providing bandwidth.
Yet intense competition drives margins down. Few make fortunes from providing basic internet services. Dumb pipes don’t make for high profits.
Contrast this with the billions media companies earn distributing content on telecommunications networks.
Service providers had a good idea that others make more from the internet than they do. Deep packet inspection confirmed their suspicions. Yet they only needed to turn to the finance pages of newspapers to see what was happening.
In 2015, Netflix, the video-streaming service, accounted for one-third of US internet traffic. Service providers had to build fatter dumb pipes. They needed to buy more bandwidth to keep episodes of Game of Thrones streaming into homes. Their costs went up yet they sat outside watching Netflix rake in the profits.
It’s not only Netflix and video streaming. Most big internet service providers are also telecommunications companies. Over-the-top services like Skype, which uses voice over IP to bypass phone tolls, hurts their business. Net neutrality helps telecommunication companies’ fiercest rivals and gives little back.
The argument that Netflix, Skype and others should pay to use fatter pipes makes sense from the telco point of view. You could see Netflix and similar large-scale content operations as free riders.
Yet if network owners override net neutrality, critics say it will break the internet.
Breaking the internet
By break the internet, they mean it will choke innovation. They argue the last 25 years of progress made since the internet opened for business would grind to a halt.
Online innovation only happened because entrepreneurs were free to try new ideas. Email, web, e-commerce, video and social media would not have emerged without a neutral net.
As you’d expect most positions on the net neutrality debate come down to self-interest. Yet ideology also plays a role.
In America, it became political. Lawmakers took sides and government agencies weighed into the debate. In 2015 America’s Federal Communications Commission adopted the Open Internet Order. This enshrined the idea of net neutrality in US law.
Last year presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio tried to overturn the law. Their campaign may have succeeded.
“Ajit Pai, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Federal Communications Commission, is taking a page from his boss’ book and moving quickly to roll back regulations. In the process, he’s raising questions about the future of equal access to the internet.”
All land-based internet traffic passes through a wholesale layer. That means Chorus, Northpower, UFF and Enable Networks guarantee net neutrality. New Zealand land-based ISPs don’t have end-to-end control. It’s hard for them to be anything other than neutral.
Net neutrality not in New Zealand
Until now that’s been enough to keep net neutrality off the agenda. Only land-based networks had enough capacity. Only they could deliver the high-bandwidth traffic that might attract a higher price.
For now, mobile networks only carry a fraction of data traffic —well under ten percent. This may yet change if fixed wireless broadband grows.
Even so, mobile will remain small compared to fixed-line broadband services.
It doesn’t serve Vodafone or Spark’s interest to discriminate in fixed-line broadband. If either tried to do so with fixed-line broadband, rivals would step in. They’d make a lot of it in their marketing.
Tough competition is enough to counter the threat to fixed-line internet.
Mobile networks face less competitive pressure. Despite 2degrees the mobile market is not far from a duopoly1.
Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees have end-to-end control over the traffic. There’s at least a potential to discriminate.
Today Spark and Vodafone have an ability to discriminate and a possible incentive to do so. That’s not to say they will, but they can.
The Commerce Commission has never been backward when dealing with telecommunications companies. If there’s a whiff of reduced market competition, expect action.
Likewise, the Telecommunications Act gets revisited every five years or so. Many in Parliament would love to squash net neutrality.
Think back to earlier debates about internet issues. Our politicians are not up to speed.
The Commerce Commission is slow at times. Its processes are often ponderous. After bruising battles on other fronts, the last thing telcos want is another fight. It would be long, expensive and distracting.
Red-tape alone could be enough to keep net neutrality off the agenda. If not, there is the near certainty of market intervention. That and potential penalties will concentrate minds.
Given those numbers, your message stands a good chance of getting through.
With a billion people spending 20 minutes a day on the site, statistics say your message should reach its target sooner rather than later.
Yet not every person is on Social media. Not even in the world’s rich countries . Not all the people with Facebook accounts are frequent site visitors. Many users are, to use the popular jargon, not engaged.
So unless you know your target will read your message before too long, social media is not the best way to send important messages. It can be hit and miss.